Towards the end of last week, I experienced a minor crisis during an intense coincidence of events that raised questions about the values we promote in my school and the extent to which we have control over that. At the heart of the issue is our desire to adopt a strong position on equality in relation to sexuality; to tackle homophobic language and promote LGBT rights in a positive and proactive manner. Earlier this term I ran an assembly to raise the issue, as described in this post promoting Stonewall’s superb resources.
This then led to a number of students volunteering to join our embryonic Equalities Group. The two dominant issues of concern are low-level but persistent homophobia surrounding the pejorative use of ‘gay’ and the sexism that several of our Sixth Form girls experience and want to tackle more robustly and systematically. On March 27th we held an assembly run by one of our Y13 students who wanted to share his perspective on being gay and on homophobia. (It was nicely coincidental that this preceded the first gay weddings on March 29th.).
Here are a couple of excerpts from the assembly – one of the most powerful and important I’ve ever heard a student give. Bear in mind this is given on the stage to an audience of nearly 1000 people including students from Year 7-13 and their teachers. He used the format of an FAQs exchange:
This message about sexual identity is absolutely critical to the issue. Teenagers growing up are all going through the process of discovering their sexual identity. These are not choices we make.
This was very powerful: LGBT issues affect us all. He went on to link the general persistence of homophobia to a wider equality and rights agenda and the importance that we should all attach to that in the communities we operate in. He received a wonderful, impassioned and extended round of applause. It was moving and intelligent; unanswerable. I had tears in my eyes because, even though we’d discussed the importance of avoiding gay-victim associations, I knew that it took great courage to do what he’d done. Later that day I had another meeting of our Equalities Group where we discussed a range of actions that the students felt we could be taking. They will be addressing the school on the issue of sexism just after Easter. I’m so proud of them all; young people who want to tackle prejudice and discrimination head-on and are sick of the persistent undercurrent that is tolerated and even celebrated by too many people in the name of comedy/banter/post-modern irony….or whatever.
So – what was the crisis? This is where the RE GCSE comes in.
At Christmas I took over a Year 10 RE class following the departure of a colleague. They are entered for the AQA RE GCSE Short Course, taken in May of Year 10. At this stage in the course we are focusing on revision and exam preparation. In general I think the course is excellent. Through the vehicle of Christian Ethics, students have the opportunity to explore a wide range of issues including global conflict, drugs, sex and marriage, abortion, crime and punishment and so on. It is possible to engage in some fantastic discussions. Many of the questions invite students to consider their own views and to reference these against alternative perspectives including those from a broad spectrum of Christian traditions. I’m not remotely alone in being an atheist teacher of RE – my perspective on being an atheist Headteacher is recorded in this blog post – and I think it has an important place in the curriculum. It is perfectly possible to teach about Christianity without believing in it – although admittedly some of the Bible referencing is a challenge. However, as a non-specialist teacher but someone with a sound grasp of the issues and the examination criteria, I am doing my best to see them across the finish line; I’m optimistic that they’ll do well.
The issue arose with the mock exam that we’d set early this term, using the 2012 paper. I didn’t notice this before they sat it but when I was wading very slowly through the scripts to mark them ( a painful process in itself as a non-specialist, taking over 25 mins per script) I found that one of the optional questions was this: “Homosexuality is not a sin” Do you agree? ( as in the tweet above.) I started to read some of the answers and was instantly shocked. Despite all the messages we’ve been trying to give in the school – and some pretty strong guidance in my RE lessons – students had been given license to spew out their homophobic prejudice. About half of the responses had taken a ‘disagree’ position. To give you a flavour of the responses, here is the official examiner’s report:
Adam and Steve!! You’d better believe it. I had that response in three scripts from my class alongside the bigoted old chestnuts from Leviticus. In case you imagine that to disagree was basically the wrong answer (as one twitter respondent suggested), I’m afraid not. Here is the mark scheme:
Not only are the ‘other views’ perfectly acceptable, the ‘agree’ answers include the idea that homosexuality is ‘a matter for individual conscience’ and refers to ‘homosexual tendencies’ – something Rowan Atkinson used to say in his satirical Not The Nine O’Clock News ‘Vicar’ sketches. Faced with this, my immediate reaction was that I couldn’t condone it and refused to mark it. I even put a line through the answers I didn’t approve of – to make the point. It wasn’t an entirely rational action but that’s what I did. Imagine if the question had been framed in relation to racism or ‘women’s place is in the home’ or any other piece of backward thinking of that kind. If you invite students to say if they agree, you are inviting them to disagree – and to express blatant bigotry – in an exam! It’s totally unacceptable and I’m surprised that a greater fuss was not made at the time of real paper in June 2012.
The day after doing this marking, was the day of the assembly quoted above. Beyond irony – but ultimately fortuitous. I had a quick meeting with RE colleagues to discuss the situation. There was a recognition that the question was problematic but that this was not the students’ fault and I accepted that they shouldn’t be made responsible. There is a technical discussion to have about the theological concept of ‘sin’ and an interpretation of the question that is this: “Is it appropriate to regard homosexuality as a ‘sin’ within the context of Christian teaching?” My view is that Y10 students are not in a position to differentiate between that version and the interpretation that is “Homosexuality is unacceptable. Do you agree?” – switching a double negative into an affirmative response. One comment I received suggested my issue stemmed from being a non-specialist RE teacher. I don’t think that’s it at all.
Luckily I was due to teach my class that day. They’d all been in the assembly so when I raised the issue, they understood. I told them why I hadn’t marked Question 6d and why it was so wrong for them to have been put in a situation where, to answer an RE exam question, they’d been taken down a path of expressing homophobic attitudes – in a manner that their own teacher found deeply offensive. There was a good response even though I know that some of my students hold these particular religious views quite strongly and find themselves conflicted by the messages they receive at school and at home. In the end I gave them ‘technical marks’, happy in the knowledge I’d dealt with the issue head-on.
There are some big questions for us to answer as we look ahead. So far we’ve only managed to have preliminary discussions about the value of the whole topic within an RE course and this is set to continue next term. Is it a legitimate topic for 14-15 year olds to debate? I’m not sure; not if our over-riding objective is to tackle homophobic prejudice. There is a line of argument from some ultra-literal/traditional Christian quarters that sexual relationships should be confined to their procreative purpose within marriage. (Often the same folk who oppose contraception and cling onto creationism.) On that basis, any sex, including gay sex, is unacceptable if it isn’t procreative. The logic is that gay sex is wrong; end of story. For me, that is not an acceptable debate to be having at this level. Why should a young gay person have to sit in a classroom listening to badly-informed teenagers telling them that they’re not entitled to have sex; that their sexuality has lower value. Given the persistence of homophobic intolerance and the vulnerability of young gay teenagers, I don’t think schools should allow that possibility on any grounds.
Does this mean that certain religious beliefs have to be suppressed and given lower value or even denounced? Well, yes it does. It’s a position a school needs to take at the highest level. I’ll be saying that the school needs to make it very explicit: if you want to attend this school where gay students have identical rights and freedoms to any other student, including the freedom from prejudice or intolerance of their sexual orientation – you’d better be happy to keep any religious bigotry to yourself. (We might not express it in those terms exactly!) What does that mean for the RE syllabus? That’s the subject of further discussion. At this point I don’t know what the alternatives are but one thing is for sure, if I ever see an exam paper like that again, I’d be making the strongest complaint imaginable. I’d even consider legal action.